Gagaku self-help

The music contained in this clip is some of the strangest I have ever heard.  For most musicians who are trying to compose, improvise or somehow create something, the search for strangeness, or “newness”, whether in the familiar or in the undiscovered, keeps us alive.

And often it’s pretty slim pickings, like this beetle that waits with its bum in the air until the desert fog forms water droplets which then trickle down into its eager mouth.

Almost everything has been done, talked about, blogged about.  Many other forms of music from around the world have penetrated our culture so completely, derailing Western High Art Music’s quest for total atonality and supreme structural unity in favour of a more mixed and multi-cultural palette (I wonder if Schoenberg et al might have abandoned this agenda in the early twentieth century had they encountered the Baka Pygmies)(1).  In our “access to everything” lives, the water that trickles down from our upturned arses has most likely been recycled, rebottled and reused many times, and now, I sense, is the time to bring this strained metaphor to a close.

But to discover the music, and choreography, of Gagaku is like walking into an alien world.    A world made entirely of undiscovered atoms,  atoms that in turn form themselves into unimagined structures, making up a landscape in which everything belongs together but in a way known only to the structures themselves.  Traditional notions of virtuosity, technique, development, groove, melody and, above all, the ‘storytelling” qualities of music, are not even reversed, they are eliminated, and not in the way associated with, for example, many “western’ composers, where there is an invention of something that demands we call them a genius“, but in a way that seems to imply that this is music in its natural form.  It’s music for the beginning, and end, of the world, a ballet that tells the story not of the meeting of lovers or the quarrels of kings, but of one tectonic plate shifting imperceptibly into another.

Some might say that the lack of “human interest” is a problem.

Nevertheless, I can think of no other music that describes the simple passing of time in such “intimate” detail.   I don’t mean psychological time, like, “Oh how time flies when you’re having fun it passes the time of day time marches on the ravages of time I don’t have time for this”…I mean time as a simple, stand-alone thing of beauty.  The framing of a second never sounded so good, this is Blake’s “eternity in an hour” perfectly realised in sound.  When I listen to this music I hear time spun out in layers, almost sculpted like clay, the small kakko drum’s patterns expanding and contracting against the slow, sonorous thud of the gigantic Da-daiko skins, the melody of the hichikiri (a kind of neurotic oboe) in a kind of demented unison with the flute, the two often falling away from each other as one or the other appears to pause for breath.   Such inconsistencies are the nemesis of western Classical Music; here they define the music’s progress, endlessly revolving around a repeating melody that is so slow as to be almost imperceptible, yet is heard with fresh ears each time.  Then there is the sho, the high pitched mouth organ that seems to bind together the whole with slowly evolving chords, an unearthly sound, perhaps with a touch of early Weather Report, that seems to stop time in it’s tracks.  Now watch the biwa (a kind of Japanese lute) players; they are using plectrums the size of dinner plates, maximum thwack with minimum mobility.  That’s fine, they are just waiting patiently for their moment to play, at the most, a couple of notes.  Sometimes they only play one.  The kotos work alongside,  yet are distinct from, the biwa in that they might fill out a whole chord.  Struck strings mirror the steps of the dancers, both musicians and dancers immersed in a slow motion arc leading to a precision attack.

I am struggling to find a sentence that moves slowly enough to describe the huge, seemingly breathing body that is the Gagaku orchestra.  Each of its parts strictly delineated, notated, handed down, the variety coming solely from the way it’s breath might change from bar to bar, the slight holding back as a beat arrives a little late, the gradual tailing off of a flute’s melody against the immovable force of the hichikiri’s line.  A vast moving organism of sound.

Music is seldom so regulated as it is here, yet Gagaku always makes me want to improvise.  It shakes up all the ear worms in my head, all the gremlins, creatures of habit, occasional voices of doom, and says “It’s only music.”  Sound in time, movement in space.  Back in the saddle.


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